Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Heart of a Woman - Maya Angelou

Finally a Maya Angelou (1928-2014) book, thanks to Sagar. The Heart of a Woman is the fourth in a seven book series of her life, immensely popular autobiographies and one can get a sense of why they are. There is tremendous energy and honesty as she tells her life story between the years 1957 and 1962. A time when she is living as a single mother with her son Guy who she is trying to bring up to question and never accept anything as a given. And for the record, Maya is black, and champions black causes, was a civil rights activist, and writes so powerfully about the black people tat when I saw a bit of a movie last evening and saw the white actors, I wondered how much of history has been subverted by movies. How we associate notions of beauty and power, fairness and justice with whites. Maya builds a black world that is so beautiful and honest and real with all its imperfections.
Bantam, 272 p
Maya is then making a living as a singer and a dancer. The book opens to a sudden visit to her home by the famous jazz singer Billie Holiday and how she and Guy survive Billie's mood swings and bouts of alcoholism. It's a delightful beginning and one can see Maya's honesty, spunk and before the chapter ends. Billie of course tells her that she will never get anywhere as a singer, stands up and shuts Maya down in a public performance saying she cannot bear to hear her and moves on after breaking Guy's heart with a scathing account of how racism is in reality.

Maya moves on to New york, after a small tryst with her mother, another incredible scene, described with tremendous energy, as the two ladies walk regally into a whites only hotel and Maya's mom teaches her how not to show fear - with a gun in her purse and intent to shoot of course. In New York she joins the Harlem Writers Guild and they tell her to write and when she reads it, tears her apart. Maya survives them and continues writing, finds a place to sing to pay bills and even finds a man, Thomas, a bail bond guy. She is unapologetic about her sexual appetite and about how she steps back for her security and sexual needs.

Guy is growing up, picks up fights with gangs but tries to be what Maya brought him up as - honest and brave. A stint with the SCLC where she and another friend promise a play, enact it (Cabaret to Freedom) written by the over-promising and always-delivering Angelou, a play watched by Sydney Poitier himself and applauded by him standing on the tables. She works for the SCLC, meets their leader Martin Luther King, and puts in so much of work. She also meets Malcolm X, describing his radiant energy and also puts up a protest in the UN which goes horribly wrong as hundreds show up where they expect fifty. Black anger is real and bubbling and Maya does not know how to channel it.

Maya then falls in love with the enigmatic African freedom fighter Vuz Make and breaks off her engagement with the staid old Thomas. Vuz has notions of how African women should be and Maya falls into line, and puts up with all that Vuz imposes on her, an African code of sorts where wives merely nourish their men despite their infidelity. Vuz stops her form working in the play, 'The Blacks' and as the man of the house fails to pay rent so they are evicted. But still Maya is hopelessly in love with the man who is so good to her in every way, including the bed. There is a line which goes something like - Intelligence gets my pornographic mind working.

Then we move on to Cairo where Vuz takes Maya. Once again he provides a rich house where he has paid small advances and people start coming to collect stuff back. Maya starts working, their marriage starts cracking and finally they separate. Guy finishes school, and Maya wants him to study in Ghana University and before he joins the university he is involved in a serious accident. Guy survives, goes to college, and Maya moves on with her life.

Fabulous writing. Angelou's six feet frame, her intelligence, her passion, her anger, her pride in being black, her many talents, her courage and her fears, her raw sexuality all shines through in her writing. Only few people can do that - those who know themselves well and those who are themselves with nothing to hide. There can be nothing but respect for such people and whatever they do. Poet, singer, dancer, actor, playwright, music composer, writer, activist and a big voice for blacks, its a pleasure to know a person like Maya Angelou (through her work). Of course one cannot forget her presence when she recited her poem 'On the Pulse of Morning' at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton. 

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